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It will 210 years since the death of William Cowper on next Sunday 25th April.

William Cowper was born on November 15th 1731 at Berkhamstead rectory Hertfordshire and so lived for 68 years.

His life was not an easy one, his mother died when he was only 6 years old and his father and his best friend, Sir William Russell both died in July 1756  The same time also saw his separation from from his cousin Theadora Cowper whom he loved, but whose father, Ashley Cowper, refused to let them marry.

Cowper was articled as a solicitor and attorney and eventually called to the bar in June 1754. he was courting Theadora from 1751 to 1754 and wrote her love poems. His life was filled with much sadness and after much stress over a forthcoming job in the House of Lords as Clerk of the Journals he attempted to commit suicide several times and ended up in Dr N Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum. By July 1764 he had recovered and was converted by reading Romans 3 v25.

Cowper had several close friendships with both men and women. Sir William Russell, Mr and Mrs  William Unwin, the Throckmortons and Rev John Newton and others but several times knew bouts of mental illness and  once was insane or as he describes it “ in total darkness” before his conversion. His life was filled with sadness and he suffered from terrible damming nightmares for much of his life. I think it would be true to say that his reputation in his life and since has been marred with a misunderstanding of his condition and an inability for evangelicals and others to come to terms with it.

Cowper today is known for his poetry for which he became a national figure while he was still alive, for his letter writing and of course for his composition of Hymns. He with Rev. John Newton published the Olney hymns in 1779 which went through at least 37 editions by 1836.

What is not so well known is that Cowper loved to read all his life and read in five languages, he lost his own library during his first illness and lived on borrowed books and read them at speed but still retained much of their arguments in his mind. He kept up to date with current literature and also loved to read the Puritan and the Reformers, and did so till the end of his life, although when he had difficulty seeing delighted in being read to.

William Cowper was an Anglican Evangelical Christian who saw the many problems within that Church during his days and some of his poetry and writings were directed against abuse within the Church. Cowper was a friend of many of the dissenters and sought fellowship with them while remaining an Anglican. William Cowper’s faith has either not been understood or has been misunderstood or counted as part of his “madness”. Cowper was a mentor to many and had a great influence among the Churches for good. Cowper was a Calvinist in his doctrine and was always trying to understand what was the correct understanding of Scripture, as I said earlier he was widely read and retained much of what he read and  so had a good understanding of both Scripture and theology that arises from Scripture.

A few of his hymns are still sung today, :-

God Moves in a mysterious way. There is a fountain filled with blood, Oh for a closer walk with thee. Hark my soul it is the Lord. Jesus where’re thy people meet. There is a list of 66 at www.cyberhymnal.org

Some of his other writings were The Task. John Gilpin. Translations of Homer. Castaway. The Tale, Writings to abolish Slavery etc His collected works are still available today.

There have been many Biographies on William Cowper, George M Ella says in his introduction that there have been at least 45 detailed ones since 1800 the year of his death, but many of them do not do him justice and are written with many misapprehensions and biases.

I have read Dr George Ella’s “William Cowper Poet of Paradise” and having enjoyed it I have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending it and acknowledging my gratitude for it.

© Jeff Maxwell 2010




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